The Gatekeepers

Kenyon Review associates pore over literary submissions for promising works.

By David Hoyt

As one of the literary world’s most prestigious publications, the Kenyon Review is accustomed to receiving submissions from well-known authors and poets. But, each year, the journal also opens its doors to a flood of literary works from unknown writers and counts on Kenyon students to serve as gatekeepers.

Between classes, Kenyon Review interns and associates can be found sprawled out on the couches of Finn House, clicking through thousands of unsolicited submissions. Each short story, essay and poem is read by two students, who are taught how to spot promising pieces and are then responsible for “upvoting” the work to bring it to the attention of the editorial staff.

“If you do vote it up, you write a little note explaining why,” said Cameron Messinides ’19, an intern at the Review who started as an associate during his first year at Kenyon. Messinides was the second reader of a short story called “Excommunication” that has been accepted by the Review and will be published in the September/October 2018 issue.

“It’s always an immensely rewarding feeling to find young and undiscovered talent,” said fellow intern Claire Oleson ’19, who read “Excommunication” first and passed it along to Messinides. The story, about a single mother raising two children alongside Amish neighbors, is by Nicole Hebdon, a writer who previously was unknown to the editors of the Review.

Throughout the year, the Review’s interns and associates meet as a group to discuss works that have been accepted for publication, sharpening their instincts for what to look for in a submission. “What struck me about this piece was its treatment of character,” Oleson said. “‘Excommunication’ demonstrates a delicacy and an awareness of character that rendered it both deeply engaging for me and left me enjoyably torn about how I was intended to feel.”

Messinides was drawn to the story’s unexpected elements. “This piece stood out because it had funny things that you weren’t quite sure how it got in there, just all these little colorful details that drew me in,” he said.

“We couldn’t have found this story by ourselves,” said Associate Editor Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, who is the NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at Kenyon. “Associates help to make sure that we’re alert to what’s new or different in the writing that we receive. They give us the benefit of their fresh point of view as they read.”

Oleson, an English major from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who wants to pursue writing or publishing after graduation, values having the Review “both on my resume and in my life.” She said, “The Kenyon Review has given and continues to give me excellent opportunities to navigate the world of publishing and writing in a way that I believe is not replicable inside the classroom.”

For Messinides, an American studies major from Camden, South Carolina, his work at the Review has deepened his understanding and appreciation of literature. “It’s nice to feel like I can come to Finn House and just chat with people and talk about a reading we both went to the night before,” he said.

When they’re not deep into piles of reading, interns and associates at the Review also help craft promotional materials and organize events like an annual literary festival and Poem In Your Pocket Day. Added Oleson, “It brings me a lot of joy, interesting work, fascinating reading and irreplaceable contact with some lovely people.”